A New Year Feast in Kyoto

Fantastic Japanese Kaiseki Cuisine at Funairi

One of the great memorable food options in this country of so many irresistible fine dining options is to try a feast of luxury kaiseki Japanese cuisine at a gourmet restaurant on Gantan the first day of the New Year.

Anago and Yuba 3 New Year Feast kaiseki.jpgAnago conger eel with yuba, turnip and shungiku greens

This year my extended Japanese family and I headed to the luxury kaiseki fine dining specialist Irifune, on the 6th floor of Kyoto's Hotel Okura for a Japanese New Year feast of Garagantuan proportions. Yes, this was a biggie. Over the space of several hours, the Irifune master-chef, Daisuke Usui served up a nine-course banquet containing 52 delicately-prepared, gorgeous items of seasonal and local Japanese cuisine. Was it heaven, or torture by food? In fact, it was a little of both.

New Year kaiseki collage New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

Some details of Irifune's nine-course kaiseki spread

We were seated at a long, low table on tatami mats, with a pleasant view of the Higashiyama mountains. In the alcove sat kagamimochi, the rice-cake, mikan citrus, persimmon and ko(n)bu kelp seaweed-decoration traditionally used to welcome in the New Year. Konbu is used as in its other pronunciation, kobu, it forms a play-on-words symbolising 'yorokobu': to enjoy oneself. That is certainly what we had planned.

The first offering was the that traditional, ritual, purifying element found in every Japanese ceremonial or formal occasion: sake. In this case, a mild, sweet, low-alcohol nigorizake (soon to be followed by champagne, and a white wine with the intriguing name of The Majestic Blue Demon - I wonder if Japanese people see these when they've had a little too many glasses rather than pink elephants?). 

The order of ceremonies followed that of traditional Kyoto kaiseki cuisine. First up in the nine-course Japanese feast extravaganza was the Sakazuki, often translated as the 'Amuse-Bouche', the 'tidbits' set to fire up your appetite and culinary imagination. It certainly didn't disappoint with this following arsenal of taste sensations:

Ankimo monkfish liver New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

Ankimo is the liver of the monkfish, a winter delicacy herein Japan, often referred to as the 'Foie Gras of the Ocean'. Its nickname reflects its intense, richy, creaminess. Here it was served with hotate scallops, ukegi scallions, natane rapeseed, Tosazato sugar-jelly from Kochi prefecture, udo a mountain vegetable and all topped off with: yes, kinpaku: slivers of gold leaf. When the Japanese celebrate with a New Year feast, they certainly don't hold back. Edible gold for starters!

Shiromiso Zouni with Salmon

Shiromiso jitate with grilled salmon: an old school Kyoto New Year fine dining favorite

Next up was the Owan, a soupy dish, in this case a fabulous Kyoto-style zoni soup: zoni shiromiso jitate, with ebi-imo yam and maru mochi, the ever-present rice cakes of any Japanese New Year celebration. Across the country, the ingredients for this traditional New Year delicacy vary. Kyoto favors shiromiso white miso. Often I find it cloyingly sweet, and not particularly to my taste, but here Chef Usui had got his amami and umami (sweetness and tastiness) spot on, and the salmon, seared in the aburi-style, was perfection. Two courses down, just the seven to go... 

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Otsukuri Raw Fish Maguro Tuna New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

 Otsukuri raw fish platter: tuna, sea bream and horse-mackerel anyone?

After the Owan comes Otsukuri, the raw fish platter that outside of the Kansai region is termed sashimi. Otsukuri may at first glimpse appear to be a misnomer - it means 'the thing which is made' - and that may seem odd for a raw fish, until you remember the skill with which it is selected, sliced and served. Irfune only uses the freshest and finest. In today's case maguro tuna, tai sea-bream and shima-aji horse-mackerelHassun Assorted dishes New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

 The Hassun course takes pride of place at Kaiseki meals: no exception here

After the raw fish it's time for the Hassun, 'the Eight Tasty Dishes' course in which kaiseki chefs are encourgaed to show off their true skills (as if Usui-san hasn't already!). Takes long breath. Our hassun course included: sweet kuromame black beans; tazukuri, small dry-roasted sardines, served in a sweet sauce; temari-fu ball-shaped gluten; kazunoko herring roe, seri to hoshigake dried persimon shiramono-ae; atsuage tamago egg, emblazoned with the kanji character for good luck, kotobuki; (above picture, top left) namako sea-cucumber mizore-ae; and kumoko blowfish milt with kuwai-dofu and yuzumiso (above picture bottom right).

What a mouthful, literally and metaphorically. The kumoko, in particular, was out of this world, and 'learn how to make yuzumiso' is now top of my 2018 New Year's resolutions list. Who would have thought, when I left Yorkshire 31 years ago, I'd be writing that last sentence? Not least as kumoko is the seminal fluid of the poisonous fugu pufferfish... Buri no Saikyo Yaki New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

Buri no Saikyo-yaki yellowtail: another Kyoto specialty dish

The next course, Yakimono, literally means 'grilled things', and is a direct left-over from the rather more restrained chakaiseki-style of dining that would accompany tea ceremonies here in Kyoto (and indeed still do today). The yakimono is usually fish, and so it was to be here, with buri no Saikyo-yaki, yellowtail marinated in Saikyo miso(pictured here above), a miso from the Arashiyama and Katsura areas of Western Kyoto. This was just superb, and came served with the festive red-and-white kohaku namasu daikon and sugukioroshi grated pickled suguki turnip. 

Anago and Yuba New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

By this time I was beginning to flag a little. Only four courses left I told myself. My in-laws showed no sign of slowing down, so I kept on. And was I glad? The Takiawase course always consists of vegetables and fish, simmered separately and then combined to perfection. A great takiawase is a thing of beauty, and this was no disappointment. Usui-san served up one of my favorites, yakianago grilled conger eel with yuba, kabu turnip, shungiku greens, and hariyuzu grated yuzu citrus. What a thing of delicacy and grace! The eel was melt in the mouth soft, as was the yuba tofu skin, with just the crunch and aromatic subtlety of the vegetables to provide the crunchy, very mildly sour contrast, all topped with that wonderfully aromatic yuzu topping. Mushizushi New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

Mushizushi 'hot sushi', no less

The seventh course was testing my limits. It is known as Gohan, yes, literally 'rice' and is indeed that. Usui-san served it in the mushizushi-style, a kind of 'warm sushi' with koshi-tamago egg, ikura salmon roe, kani crab, takenoko young bamboo, shiitake mushrooms and unagi eel. I must confess that it was around half way through that I raised the white flag and asked assistance from the cavalry - in the shape of Mrs A and her brother. They polished off what remained in several seconds. My Japanese family sure can tuck it away, despie having an average height of about 5ft2 and with waistlines to match. The drinks continued to flow, and keeping notes was definitely getting harder! Kaiseki Menu annotated New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

After sake, wine and champagne taking notes was not easy and neither were the kanji characters

As we entered course number eight, the Tomewan - literally 'the stopping bowl' - I began to utilise what the Japanese refer to as your 'betsu bara'. It is your 'separate stomach', ie, the second wind that allows you to make it to the end of the kaiseki meal in one piece. The sumashi jitate clear soup was both tasty, and an easy ask even after all that feasting! Tomewan Sumashi Jitate Soup New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg

Bravo! The Tomewan clear soup signals you've nearly made it to the end

Finally, course number nine  was here, the Mizumono fruit selection.  A Western pear, beni madonna orange, ichigo strawberry, and wine jelly signalled the Japanese New Year feast had finally reached its conclusion. It was something of a marathon, but what fun and what a taste sensation, marking my 31st year in the Foodie heaven that is Japan. Thankyou Irifune, thankyou Chef Usui, and thankyou to my father-in-law who had to shoulder the bill! Mizumono Strawberry desert New Year Feast kaiseki.jpg



Irifune @ Hotel Okura, Kyoto

Japan 604-0924 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Ichinofunairicho, 537−4

Visit their Website

Tel 81-75-254-2537 or 81-75-211-5123

BREAKFAST 7:00 - 10:00

LUNCH 11:30 - 14:30

DINNER 17:30 - 21:00

Price range: Irifune Kaiseki lunch at New Year 10,000 yen

Accepted: Cash / Visa / MasterCard / Amex/JCB/Diners

Smokers allowed? : No

Check out What's Cooking at  TSUKIJI COOKING


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